Can sports betting get Maine out of hole?

Scrooge paid a visit to Maine just after Thanksgiving as Scarborough Downs closed its doors.

The harness track south of Portland had been in business for 70 years and when the lights went out on Nov. 28, it meant for hundreds of people whose livelihoods depended on the track, their Christmas was going to be a lousy one.

The future is uncertain. For now, Scarborough remains an off-track betting site. The track’s owners have a plan to develop the property. But the hope is legalized sports betting could provide a new revenue stream.

An attempt to get a sports betting bill passed died in January when Gov. Janet Mills decided not to sign it under pressure from opponents, including the state’s two casinos, one of which operates the state’s other harness track in Bangor.

This was before the coronavirus pandemic threw everything into a tizzy, not the least of which was the state’s budget.

Maine is looking at a budget shortfall of approximately $400 million for 2021. Could tax revenue from sports betting help reduce that deficit?

The folks at Scarborough are hoping so. If a sportsbook were permitted at the track to join the existing OTB, perhaps enough revenue could be generated to maybe keep the track open for racing.

“If we were to get sports betting (in Maine), it would give us another option for people to come to our OTB and it would give us another form of revenue,”said Denise Terry, the track’s vice president. “I hope we can have sports betting.”

The bill’s proponents plan to reintroduce it next year. New revenue streams are hard to come by and perhaps with the economic tides having shifted, maybe Mills changes her mind and signs it when and if a revised piece of legislation comes to her desk.

Part of the opposition was the bill provided for outside companies to do business in Maine when it came to mobile betting. The casinos believed that would hurt their business. They would prefer to monopolize sports betting in the state.

But the revised bill calls for sports betting operations to be tethered to the casino and that might be enough to end any opposition.

Bangor Raceway is owned and operated by Penn National Gaming, which has a deal with Barstool Sports, which is launching sportsbooks all over the country, the most recent was last week’s announcement it was staking a claim in Maryland. Sports betting at the Hollywood Casino in Bangor would be a natural fit.

Would the revised bill include Scarborough? It would make sense to bring the track into the sports betting fold as a location to service the southern part of the state with a retail location. The infrastructure is already in place and it would create new jobs.

“We would be able to have sports betting,” Terry said. “So, we support the bill.”

Currently, Mainers who want to bet legally on sports have to drive to New Hampshire. There, they can visit a retail book in Seabrook or open a DraftKings mobile account and merely drive across the Maine-New Hampshire state line, much like New Yorkers do by driving or taking a train or ferry to New Jersey to use their mobile accounts in the Garden State.

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And, as is the case when New Yorkers bet in New Jersey, Maine residents who bet in New Hampshire help fund that state’s tax rolls. That’s money that could be going to help bail Maine out.

“I visited Seabrook and I was impressed,” Terry said. “It was beautiful the way they built their sportsbook. I think it’s the perfect model for what we’d want to do in Maine.”

Unfortunately, it won’t be enough to save racing at Scarborough. The track did not apply for dates for 2021 and it is exclusively an OTB. Whether it gets a sportsbook location remains to be seen. But don’t be surprised if Maine has sports betting in some form by this time next year and Scarborough Downs gets a much-needed economic boost to supplement its simulcasting clientele.

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